San Francisco Opera | Salome, Strauss Dances to the Abyss

Strauss Dances to the Abyss

Like the moon that features so prominently in its mise-enscène, Salome seems to reflect what its beholders are predisposed to find. The opera, variously praised and vilified, has been singled out for the sensual beauty and the aggressive brutality of its score alike. Overwrought sugary sweetness or acid-tinged dissonance? Take your pick. Where some find an artistically prophetic case study in modern neurosis, steeped in the Freudian Zeitgeist, others decry a luridly sensationalist glorification of depravity or a catalog of Orientalist clichés, cunningly repackaged.

In some ways, Strauss calls to mind an operatic Quentin Tarantino in his mastery of shock effects. Yet for all his virtuosity in making the world of Salome so intensely vivid, he seems disturbingly detached. Musicologist Hans Keller found a coldness in Strauss’s stance that hinted of “a hole in the heart.” Stravinsky reportedly complained that “he was never committed” and simply “didn’t give a damn.” Yet in his biography of the composer, Michael Kennedy cautions, “It is a major misjudgment to delude oneself with a belief that Strauss’s music did not come from his heart for all his apparent nonchalant attitude towards composition.” He cites Mahler’s remark that deep within Salome churns “an active volcano, a subterranean fire.”

Strauss’s first two operatic efforts (the post-Wagnerian Guntram in 1894 and the “little intermezzo” Feuersnot in 1901) had not made a dent, and he would eventually fall out of sync with musical modernism. But Salome positioned Strauss—who had already won notoriety as an enfant terrible in the concert hall with his tone poems—at the forefront of the avant-garde. Its shattering dissonances struck a chord with the era as soon as the opera was premiered at the Dresden Hofopera on December 9, 1905.

Starring Salome

The Oscar Wilde play that Strauss chose to set to music was already more than a decade old. Wilde wrote it while in Paris in 1891, completing the play early in 1892, when he was back in England. Salomé—Wilde was ambivalent about the accent but opted to use it for his text, which he composed in French—in turn reflects a fin-de-siècle sensibility quite distinct from that of Strauss’s musical progressivism. Their odd convergence generates much of the opera’s fascination.

The Irish playwright was inspired by a mélange of literary and visual influences. These include, among many others, Flaubert’s novella Hérodias (itself the source of another Salome opera, Massenet’s Hérodiade of 1881), the mysterious plays of Maeterlinck, and the luxuriant, sensual symbolism of Gustave Moreau’s painting. It’s a curious fact that Salome, who had figured for centuries in the visual arts, transformed into a literary muse as well in the nineteenth century. By the end of it, she had become much more than a symbol of sinful, destructive seduction: Salome was a star figure of the fin-de-siècle obsession with the unnatural and decadent, with vampiric beauty beneath which lurk terrifying desires.

The scriptural source occurs in the gospels of Matthew and Mark (where the dancer is unnamed and merely the agent of her mother Herodias’s loathing for John the Baptist). Wilde’s deliciously mannered language appropriates the lyricism of the Old Testament Song of Songs as well. Richard Ellmann, an authority on Wilde, wrote an intriguing essay arguing that Salomé encodes a personal psychodrama pitting two of the author’s artistic mentors against each other. In his reading, Jokanaan would represent the ascetic restraint and discipline of John Ruskin, at loggerheads with the ripe aestheticism of Walter Pater, as embodied in Salome’s hunger for experience. Wilde, like Herod, undergoes the influence of both before rejecting them. The play’s final words are given to the Tetrarch, whose authority at last overcomes his spinelessness as he orders Salome’s execution. The personal allegorical significance, Ellmann concludes, motivated Wilde’s original treatment of the Salome story: Both her necrophiliac kissing of Jokanann’s severed head and her execution are new twists not present in the legend and function as the climax of the play.

In a foreshadowing of the roadblocks Strauss would face with productions of his opera, Wilde’s play was banned in England by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. Wilde was already in prison by the time Salomé was first produced in public (in 1896). After the author’s death in 1900, the play found surprising success in several German productions. A staging directed in Berlin in 1902 by a young Max Reinhardt brought new prominence to Salomé and was a hit with the public and the critics.

Operatic Succès de scandale

Strauss’s attention was drawn to Salomé as an operatic possibility when a Viennese poet, Anton Lindner, whose work he had once set to music, offered to prepare a verse libretto. Strauss had been anxious to undertake a new opera and soon realized Wilde’s play offered exactly what he was looking for. Unfortunately for Lindner, he also found that he preferred to work with the straightforward translation by Hedwig Lachmann (the version used in Berlin), from which he decided to tailor his own libretto. He immediately began drafting key schemes and basic musical ideas into his printed copy of Lachmann’s text.

As a whole, the music can give the impression of being written in a white-hot spell of inspiration. Strauss, however, took his time, crafting his score between August 1903 and June 1905. He set the “Dance of the Seven Veils” aside as a sort of postscript and completed it separately in August.

Strauss made a highly publicized tour of the United States while Salome was still brewing in his head. The welcome he received would be dramatically reversed when the new opera crossed the Atlantic in 1907, generating enormous scandal. According to Kennedy, a public prayer meeting was organized to spare New York the scourge of Strauss’s artistic perversion. Their orisons were heard, and Salome was removed from the Metropolitan Opera’s season.

Despite interventions—or outright bans—in major European capitals as well, Salome was a stunning succès de scandale beginning with its Dresden debut; productions soon sprang up all over Germany. Indeed, the outrageous reputation of its score was promulgated by the condemnation from the majority of critics—who also, by and large, tended to approach the dramatic narrative as if it were intended realistically. The public made Salome into an overwhelming success.

Mirrored Obsessions

To prepare his libretto, Strauss cut roughly forty percent of Wilde/Lachmann’s text, removing minor characters along with some of the ornate language that gives the play its Art Nouveau texture. He slightly revised other passages. Strauss also stripped away the lengthy theological arguments and lost the backstory that helps clarify Jokanaan’s denunciations (and perhaps something of the adolescent Salome’s disturbed state of mind): Herodias had divorced Salome’s real father, the brother of Herod, who then imprisoned him in the same cistern before having him strangled.

Strauss’s tightening allowed for a leaner, more cleanly symmetrical structure on which his music could elaborate. Wilde filled his play with mirror-like reflections and parallels, but these become even more explicitly foregrounded in the opera. They range from recurrent local images (for example, the red of lips, wine, and blood)—with their counterparts in Strauss’s dense network of continually morphing leitmotifs—to numerological schemes. Threefold requests have the repetitiveness of a perverse fairy-tale, while the number seven figures in more than Salome’s dance. She repeats her demand for “the head of Jokanaan” sevenfold; even the key associated with her ecstatic triumph, C-sharp major, has seven sharps. Strauss meanwhile organizes the play into four scenes plus three orchestral interludes.

Most significant of Salome’s mirroring elements is the attitude of obsession, whereby each character is imprisoned in a private world and defined by what they desire or fear. Salome’s obsession with Jokanaan is of course the center around which the opera orbits. From the preludeless beginning, the brief clarinet solo snaking upward pinpoints the longing Narraboth feels for the young princess. The page, possibly from desire too, fixates on Narraboth’s vain obsession. Herod springs the plot into action first with his unwanted gazes; later, his insatiable lust again prompts Salome’s action. Herod is also obsessed by his inchoate fears of his prisoner Jokanaan.

The prophet’s fanaticism at first suggests another order of obsession. It is actually twofold, consisting both of the Taliban-like gruffness with which Jokanaan denounces sexual vice and of his vision of a new, blessed age. (Strauss, who loathed institutional religion, initially imagined the prophet as a clownish figure.) Yet, with a kind of Wildean paradox, Jokanaan’s intensity turns out to mirror and fuel that of Salome. The more fiercely he denies her, the more her desire is awakened.

Strauss’s score uses keys as well as leitmotifs to symbolize the characters, with Jokanaan centered around C and Salome around Csharp. Each literally inhabits a world so close to yet exclusive of the other that their two tonalities can meet only in grinding dissonance—which is exactly what happens at the climax of Salome’s final line. The massive dissonance of this “Salome chord” is, like the opera’s much discussed tonality, in fact meticulously, systematically planned as a musico-dramatic event. Gary Schmidgall describes this climactic chord as “the quintessence of Decadence: here is ecstasy falling in upon itself, crumbling into the abyss.” What is often casually lauded (or feared) as Salome’s “atonality”—which certainly inspired Schoenberg and his circle—is not a case of willy-nilly slip-sliding between keys so that they lose their grounding. In fact it results from a highly logical system in which particular keys represent characters and ideas much as the score’s leitmotifs do (musicologists even call the former “tonal leitmotifs”).

Similarly, descriptions that reduce the opera’s heroine to a petulant sex maniac are misguided, more in line with the sensationalism that has long surrounded the opera than with the substance of Strauss’s realization. His musical symbolism gives a new, even more intricate dimension to the ambivalence inherent in Wilde’s conception, which, as Ellmann observes, combines elements of the seductress and the chaste virgin. Strauss’s role, in addition to its extraordinary vocal demands, challenges its interpreter to depict more than one-note sexual pathology.

The dynamics of the third scene, for example, are a microcosm of Salome’s process of obsession. Her initial fickle curiosity—wanting to observe Jokanaan like a zoo specimen let loose from his cage—transforms into fascination as the prophet plays the reverse role of homme fatal. Later, Salome gives her dance by performing a role expected of her. The somewhat tawdry nature of its music seems to reflect this on purpose. How different in character is the music of her monologue, where Strauss’s “sixteen-year-old with the voice of Isolde” completely loses touch with the external world. Here, the distance between visual reality and the transporting beauty of the music generates a genuinely apocalyptic dissonance.

The monomania of Salome’s characters is infused with ambiguity. Take the strangely robotic, even narcissistic quality o Narraboth, whose desire turns suddenly to despair when the guard kills himself—the first of the opera’s three deaths. Meanwhile, from the start Strauss saturates the erotic atmosphere of this moonlit night with a sense of angst. The page’s Brangäne-like worry that “something terrible may happen” sounds the first note of impending dread: It turns out to be as important as erotic desire and frames the opera. Indeed, the two are connected. Herod’s fear that the world is out of joint—Strauss unforgettably scores the lurid scurrying of the “beating wings” he hears—is exacerbated by Jokanaan’s problematic presence, and the prophet’s death needs to be expiated with Salome’s sacrifice.

For all its reputation as a wild, muscular exercise in aggressive noise, Salome features a host of exquisitely blended sound colors. Ravel counted himself a fervent admirer. Strauss’s long-time collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal described the score as “a violent pleasure,” which gave “the sense that there lay yet more beauty beneath a shimmering veil, more than one’s senses could manage to take in at such a pace.”

During an early rehearsal, Strauss said that Salome was “a scherzo with a fatal conclusion.” When he played some of the music at the piano for his father—who died before the premiere—the old man blurted out that it made him feel as if he had insects crawling around underneath his trousers. Both descriptions actually come surprisingly close to suggesting the way Salome manipulates pace. The density of detail and continual shifting of musical attention create a hyperreal sense of time, of neurotic rush, only to recalibrate gears for the dramatic slow-motion of Salome’s final monologue.

How are we to reconcile the intense beauties and ugliness depicted in this opera? Perhaps, as Salome scholar Derrick Puffett suggests, Strauss himself leans here toward the Walter Pater/aestheticist side of the equation in Wilde’s play, whereby experience is to be cultivated as intensely as possible. “The illustrative textures in Salome, constantly changing in response to the text,” writes Puffett, “are his means of ‘cultivating each moment to the full.’” Salome, in short, displays “a variety of different ways of satisfying a musical appetite that wants to experience everything.”

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